As Vaccination Campaign Begins, Over 170,000 Israelis Have Scheduled Appointments; Hotlines Are Overwhelmed

Ido Efrati
Ido Efrati
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Israel's vaccination campaign kicked off with inoculating healthcare professionals at hospitals and health maintenance organization clinics, including at Ichilov Hospital, Tel Aviv, December 20, 2020.
Israel's vaccination campaign kicked off with inoculating healthcare professionals at hospitals and health maintenance organization clinics, including at Ichilov Hospital, Tel Aviv, December 20, 2020.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum
Ido Efrati
Ido Efrati

Israel's COVID-19 vaccination campaign has begun on Monday, with over 170,000 Israelis having already scheduled appointments to receive the coronavirus vaccine, while others tried but were unable to do so because the health maintenance organizations’ hotlines were too busy.

The vaccination campaign for the general public officially kicks off on Monday. On Sunday, approximately 10,000 medical staff were inoculated against the coronavirus.

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In the coming days, the country’s health maintenance organizations are expected to increase the rate of vaccinations, with inoculations already underway for at-risk groups and those over 60. The ministry also announced that data on daily vaccinations will also be updated on their website. 

Health Minister Yuli Edelstein celebrated the start of the vaccination campaign, and claimed that 200,000 appointments have been scheduled for the vaccination. “I call on everyone over the age of 60: go get vaccinated, this is the only way to fight coronavirus,” he added.

Prof. Ehud Davidson, CEO of the Clalit HMO, said Clalit vaccinated 1,300 people on Sunday and has scheduled appointments for around 90,000 people. Ran Saar, CEO of Maccabi, said his HMO has scheduled appointments for 50,000 people.

Meuhedet CEO Sigal Rosenberg said her HMO has scheduled 23,000 appointments. She said it will be able to vaccinate 4,000 people a day this week and 10,000 a day as of next week. Leumit CEO Haim Fernandes said his HMO vaccinated hundreds of people on Sunday, and that demand for appointments has exceeded supply.

The Health Ministry has promised there will be no shortage of vaccines. Ministry Director General Chezy Levy said the HMOs will be informed if that changes, but until then, they should schedule appointments freely.

This week, 60 vaccination sites opened, many more than originally planned.

The week is viewed as a trial period to make sure that every element of the system is working properly, from the logistics of supplying the vaccines to the actual vaccinations. Consequently, the HMOs will be able to administer only around 80,000 vaccine doses this week. The number is expected to grow next week and again the following week, until maximum output is reached.

Clalit, which insures 4.7 million Israelis, will open 20 vaccination sites on Monday, but eventually plans to have 400 sites across the country, vaccinating 40,000 people a day. Maccabi, the second-largest HMO, plans to eventually have 300 vaccination sites open.

But the fact that the start of the vaccination campaign has been moved up twice – from December 27 to December 23 and then to December 21 – has denied the HMOs four critical days to prepare. This has inevitably resulted in some glitches.

For instance, Clalit hasn’t completed implementing the computerized system that allows people to schedule both of the vaccine’s two doses, so for now, people are only scheduling their first dose. The HMO will then have to contact people individually to schedule their second dose.

Clalit said the system enabling people to schedule both doses should be up and running in the next two days. But the fact that some people have only been able to schedule one dose could create problems later on.

A Clalit official said the HMO is doing everything it can to meet the huge demand, but meanwhile, callers to its hotlines are encountering long wait times. “No system in the world can handle tens of thousands of calls a minute,” he said, noting that 850,000 Clalit members are defined as high priority to be vaccinated.

An official at Maccabi, whose hotline was so overwhelmed last Thursday that it occasionally went down, also said the HMO is constantly making improvements, and that within a few weeks, it will be “very easy” to schedule appointments for both doses. But despite the problems, he said he’s happy with how things have gone so far.

“This is a very complex operation, with many parts and processes, and they’re being executed well,” he said. “The Health Ministry’s cooperation, assistance and attentiveness to the HMOs are also noteworthy.”

The Clalit official pointed out that Israel is “one of the first in the world to execute a campaign like this. This isn’t a flu vaccine campaign; it’s the largest national health care operation we’ve had here to date.” He added that so far, many more people than expected have signed up to be vaccinated.

At a situation assessment with the CEOs of the four HMOs Sunday night, Levy said the ministry is now recommending that pregnant women, women who have recently given birth and women who are seeking to get pregnant also be vaccinated, as well as people with suppressed immune systems and members of their families.

“Just three weeks ago, nobody thought we’d already be starting to vaccinate Israelis,” Health Minister Yuli Edelstein said. “All the HMOs deserve a word of praise. I’ve always said that such a large-scale campaign will undoubtedly have problems here and there, and that we’ll get over them.

“People tell me, ‘I’ve been on the hotline for 45 minutes without getting an answer.’ This shows that demand is very great, and I’m certain we’ll overcome this.”

He added that without a network of four HMOs, “we wouldn’t be able to manage this campaign.”

On Sunday, thousands of medical staff at HMOs and hospitals, including geriatric hospitals, rehabilitation hospitals and psychiatric hospitals, were vaccinated. Medical staffers will continue to be vaccinated throughout the week.

At hospitals, the vaccination campaign turned into a major event, and many hospitals disseminated pictures of it.

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